Belarus’ gas muscle-flexing is self-sabotage

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko speaks during a news conference following talks with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, September 9, 2021. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov

LONDON, Nov 16 (Reuters Breakingviews) - Should he ever quit his day job as Belarus president, Alexander Lukashenko would be ill-advised to seek an alternative career as a poker player. The strongman’s threat read more to disrupt Russian gas supplies to Europe was an example of a poor hand played badly. If it hastens Germany’s approval of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia, his loss will be bigger still.

In last week’s sabre-rattling, part of escalating tensions over Middle Eastern migrants trapped at the border with Poland, Lukashenko was presumably trying to copy the playbook of Vladimir Putin, his principal diplomatic backer. The Russian leader holds considerable sway over Europe’s energy prices, thanks to his country supplying 40% of the region’s natural gas. Last year, the Yamal pipeline transiting Belarus to Poland and Germany carried about a fifth of that.

In theory, this should give Minsk some leverage. In practice, it’s a little different. First, Russian energy giant Gazprom (GAZP.MM) owns the Yamal pipeline. A unilateral move to disrupt flows by, say, cutting off the power to transmission stations would be an act of sabotage against Lukashenko’s only real friend. And the Kremlin’s blunt response undermined Lukashenko’s credibility, saying his words and actions “were not coordinated in any way” with Moscow read more .

Second, gas flows through Yamal were well under half last year’s levels even before the latest tensions, undermining the route’s geopolitical significance. At the end of October flows at the Germany-Poland border even went into reverse. That suggests Europe’s recent gas crisis is starting to ease as the continent’s storage facilities fill up. A month ago, they were 76% full, compared with 94% at the same time in 2020. However, Wood MacKenzie analysts said that, at approaching 87 billion cubic metres, those levels were still sufficient to cover the 58 billion cubic metres the region needs for the average winter.

There’s only one person who stands to gain from Lukashenko’s threat: Putin. The now-completed Nord Stream 2 pipeline running from Russia to Germany beneath the Baltic is awaiting regulatory signoff from Berlin and Brussels. Its annual capacity of 55 billion cubic metres of gas is almost double Yamal’s. With tensions flaring once more in Ukraine, another gas transit route, Europe has added incentive to fast-track Nord Stream 2’s approval. Should that happen, Lukashenko’s threats will have doubly backfired.

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- Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko on Nov. 11 raised the possibility of shutting down the Yamal Russian gas pipeline crossing his country to Poland and Germany in retaliation against European Union sanctions.

- Minsk and the EU are in an increasingly tense standoff over hundreds of mainly Middle Eastern migrants trying to cross from Belarus into Poland. EU foreign ministers agreed on another round of sanctions against Belarus individuals and companies on Nov. 15.

- “We are heating Europe. They are still threatening us that they will close the border. And if we shut off natural gas there?” Lukashenko said in comments carried by the Belta state news agency on Nov. 11.

- European spot gas prices rose about 2% after the comments, before easing again. They retreated again on Nov. 12 after the Kremlin said Lukashenko had not discussed the gas threat with Moscow, his main political ally. Russian gas flows through the Yamal pipeline rose on Nov. 15.

Editing by Neil Unmack and Oliver Taslic

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Ed is Associate Editor of Reuters Breakingviews, based in London. He joined the London Breakingviews team in 2018 as Africa columnist. Before that, he was Reuters sub-Saharan Africa bureau chief, based in Johannesburg. During two decades at Reuters, Ed has reported from three continents, with postings in London, Edinburgh, Phnom Penh, Bangkok and Johannesburg. Along the way, he has covered everything from the dotcom bubble to the death of Nelson Mandela and fall of Robert Mugabe. He holds a degree in Classics from Cambridge University.